The Mistreatment of Sikh Migrant Workers in Italy
By Manroop Bains
Many of the agricultural workers in the Agro Pontino region of Italy are Sikhs from India, who traveled to Italy, in order to provide for their families back home(Source: Aljazeera).
The Agro Pontino is the region of fertile farmland in central Italy, it’s one of their main areas of food production. According to Roberto Sepe, the director of Italy’s Largest Agricultural Whole Sale Market, “This place is very large, generates about 700 to 800 million euros(approx. 830,000,000 USD) a year.”.
What many don’t know is that the agricultural workers are mostly Indian Sikhs, mainly from Northern India, most of whom came to Italy to work and provide for their families back home in India. According to a migrant worker, Rajender Singh, “I earn 800-900 euros(948-1,067 USD) a month. Each of us has spent around 800,000 rupees(10,000) USD to travel to Italy. Why did I spend that much money? Because I thought that I would come here and earn 8 million rupees (100,000 USD).”. He claimed that before 2016, workers were paid 3.65-4 euros(4.33-4.74 USD) per hour, now those without papers or a regular contract get 4.5 euros(5.33 USD) per hour.
Ortolanda is a Dutch agricultural company that has a farm in the Agro Pontino. According to “Ikbhir,” an anonymous ex-employee, he worked for the company from 2012-2016, “We were paid by the piece, not by the hour. For every 100 bundles…” One bundle composed of 15 radishes. “... we were paid 3 euros. In one day, I could pack up to 3000 bundles… That was from November to April or May. And over the winter, we even worked on Sundays, 28 to 30 days a month. They only paid us if we actually went to work…”. “Ikbhir later sued the company for alleged workplace violations.
Recently, Ortolanda has claimed that they no longer do piecework and pay by the hour, but a current employee who wishes to remain anonymous says otherwise,” Seven euros per hour...at first, they pay an hourly wage, after a month, you’re paid by the bundle…(for which) You get between 2.10-2.90 euros(2.49-3.44 USD)(per bundle).”.
One aspect that is often overlooked, is meeting the demanding expectations of family back home, which weren’t always satisfied. The guilt of failing to provide for family can lead to harsh consequences. As stated by Gurmukh Singh, the president of the Indian Community of Lazio,”...at one point, workers began to hang themselves.” Workers like Tharival-Hardeep Singh, who just days prior to catching a flight back to India, hung himself with the long cloth of his turban. Others, like Tarlok Raj, turned to drugs as a last-ditch effort to escape the hell he was living.
Sikh migrants came to Italy just to work, build a life for themselves, and support their families. Instead, they are often left overworked, and underpaid, no longer being able to properly provide for their families, or bear to keep living. Yet, after Italy went into lockdown, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decree was passed, so migrant workers could regularise their immigration status to escape exploitation and obtain a more stable job.